The Torch Lady: Unveiling the Icon of Columbia Pictures

In 2004, during a casual conversation with film critic Roger Ebert, American actress Annette Benning dropped a bombshell—she claimed to be the woman behind the iconic Torch Lady logo of Columbia Pictures.

Curious, Roger Ebert reached out to Dough McCash, an art critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, to verify this revelation. Following their meeting, Dough McCash connected him directly with Michael J. Deas, the illustrator behind the 1992 Columbia Pictures logo.

In response to Benning’s claim, Michael J. Deas penned a letter accompanied by a photo of the original model. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, as featured in Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2006:

“Although Ms. Benning is a talented actress, she was not the model for Columbia Pictures. The actual model was Jenny Joseph, a homemaker and mother of two who now resides in the Houston area. She was a very gracious and unassuming model and was paid very little for her work in 1992.”

Annette Benning’s assertion left Michael J. Deas feeling uneasy. However, this wasn’t the first time such claims surfaced since Columbia Pictures adopted The Torch Lady as its logo.

Citing “The History of a Logo: The Lady with the Torch,” since its debut in 1924, numerous women have asserted being the model, though all were promptly denied by Columbia Pictures. Only a handful, including Claudia Dell, Amelia Batchler, Evelyn Venable, and a Columbia Pictures employee named Jane Bartholomew, were officially acknowledged as models in the 1930s.

From a French Quarter Apartment in New Orleans

In 1992, Columbia Pictures asked Michael J. Deas to restore The Torch Lady logo. He started looking for models.

He went to his Times-Picayune photographer buddy Kathy Anderson for help finding the proper match. Kathy said, “For years, I had taken many photos for Michael, including book covers and commissioned portraits,” to Yahoo Entertainment.

According to wwltv, Kathy Anderson suggested Jenny Joseph, a coworker and logo designer, as the model. Michael J. Deas thought Jenny Joseph was ideal.

The photoshoot occurred during Joseph’s lunch break. The trio ran to Kathy Anderson’s French Quarter flat in New Orleans.

Anderson moved objects and set up a gray-speckled fabric backdrop upon arrival.

“For fabric hanging, I set up floor boxes. She said she put the Polaroid back on her Hasselblad to test shots.

Michael J. Deas arrived with a box of warm croissants and photography gear, including fabric and a small lamp with a torch-like bulb.

Jenny Joseph recalled, “[They then] wrapped me in a piece of fabric, holding an ordinary small table lamp.”

Midway through the hours-long shooting, 28-year-old model Jenny Joseph asked to sit and revealed she was pregnant.

They returned to their spaces after the filming. To enhance the images, Michael J. Deas photographed them. It took two months to finish and present to Columbia Pictures.

Wow, it surprised me. Michael J. Deas said the image still captivates people decades later.

Jenny Joseph began and ended her modelling career with the 1992 photoshoot. Living in Houston, she is a muralist.

In 1989, Columbia Pictures became part of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Columbia Tristar Motion Picture Group, and since 1992, every Columbia Pictures picture has opened with The Torch Lady logo.

The Torch Lady Through the Ages

Quoting the book “Columbia Pictures: Portrait of a Studio” (2021), the name Columbia Pictures was adopted in 1924 after the company’s rebranding by its three founders: Joe Brandt and the Cohn brothers. Previously, the film production house was named CBC Film Sales Corporation, established in 1918.

From that point, the new logo emerged in black and white, featuring an Athena-like woman placed in an oval-shaped badge holding a shield and a sheaf of wheat.

A year later, the logo underwent a change, transforming the oval badge into a circle dominated by black, encircling the company’s name.

In 1926, the logo evolved once again, introducing the first Torch Lady resembling the Statue of Liberty. Since then, The Torch Lady became synonymous with Columbia Pictures.

However, from 1964 to 1975, the logo disappeared, replaced by one featuring a torch in front of the letter C, representing the company’s initials. There was also a semi-circle logo depicting some kind of burst of white sunlight against a black background from 1975 to 1981.

Only in the 1980s, with Coca-Cola Company’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures, did The Torch Lady reclaim her position as the primary logo, enduring to this day after Sony Pictures Entertainment’s acquisition.